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4.0 out of 5 stars Not the Gunn novel to read if you haven't read Gunn before but a most rewarding one..., 14 Dec 2013
This review is from: The Shadow (Paperback)
Dairmid Gunn, the author's nephew, recalls that Neil Gunn inscribed his wife's copy of `The Shadow', `For one who chases all the shadows away'. Aunt Phemie, who is based on the real-life Daisy Gunn, exhibits a similar force in the novel. To encounter Phemie Robertson is to be enamoured by her and to be challenged by her views on what is good about life. Nan (the niece), Ranald (a dialectical Marxist) and Adam McAlpine (an artist) may have contradictory views to Phemie's but they recognise the life force in her. Aunt Phemie is the physically attractive `older woman' but, crucially, Gunn emphasises the appeal of her quietude: `She is comfortably slim and although well over forty the gold in her hair has not faded much. I suppose gold doesn't. She is tirelessly energetic worker and yet she can stand quite still'. `The Shadow' is full of antitheses, essentially turning on the contrast between London with its blitz and Marxist circle and the restorative values of the Highlands' countryside.
Part One of the novel comprises letters from Nan to Ran in London. Readers need to appreciate these are in a style designed to reflect the mind of someone who has experienced a nervous breakdown. Highly emblematic and lyrically suffused, Nan's letters lack coherence and are hard to read. The remaining Part Two evidences that wonderful command and control of language that is Gunn's hallmark as a writer. For example, towards the end of `The Shadow', by which time the reader can assume that Nan has recovered, there is the most marvellous description of harvesting:

`What happened gave her a profound thrill, for it was exactly as if the engine came alive on its own. Its growl deepened, its power increased, all its internal horses put their heads down, took the full weight on their collars and walked into and up that gradient with their song of unconquerable strength. The great spiked wheels dipped into an old rabbit burrow, rode a greasy stone, lurched and steadied, went remorselessly on. She turned to Will. He nodded but upward, with a tilt of his head that threw humour into the air. You're doing fine! His face was weathered and antique, the ginger moustache might have been growing in more than one place, but his eyes were living and looking at her and laughing. Round came the wooden arms, the flyers, swishing and standing grain over the cutting teeth, and the teeth cut it, and up flowed the cut grain, and the inner hands of the machine gathered and tied it, and round came a fork and shot the bound sheaf clean into the open field. Oh it was wonderful! wonderful! The grain went down and was reaped in a continuous golden wave, like the wave a great ship sends from her bow. You could grow dizzy looking at it. It was marvellous! Oh it was splendid, splendid, and she patted the driving wheel and gripped it hard and looked back, and beheld the golden wave going down and Will like some old earth god aloft in his chariot. Inside her a song sang to the earth and to the sky as she went riding into it over the last crest'.

The novel's ending is clear. Despite Aunt Phemie's arguments, Nan intends to return to London and Ranald. Nan will do so strengthened by her convalescence with her aunt. Here, in the depth of her despair, Nan has found `love' for her wise aunt at `the bottom of the well of the world'. Nan has conquered her fear of the emblematic Dark Wood and its literal counterpart to the extent that she insists that she and her aunt return home though the latter at very end of `The Shadow'. As Nan casually remarks, `it's on our way anyway'. Appropriately, the novel's final paragraph ends with an image of life: `Aunt Phemie, through a sudden deeper meaning in the simple words, smiled to her. In a moment Nan was delighted and caught her arm. But some little distance from the wood, Nan stopped dramatically. `Listen', she said, breathless in the vivid moment. A bird was singing in the dark wood'. `The Shadow' isn't the Gunn novel to read if you haven't read Gunn before. Nor is it his easiest novel but it's a most rewarding one.

Stewart Robertson
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The Shadow
The Shadow by Neil M. Gunn
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